‘Detroit’: Fire in a crowded theater

 Actor Matteo J. Scammell on the set of

Actor Matteo J. Scammell on the set of "Detroit". (Kimberley Paynter/for NewsWorks)

Shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater is forbidden, but what about setting a fire in a crowded theater? That’s happening these nights at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in a play called “Detroit,” being produced by Philadelphia Theatre Company.

When director Maria Mileaf first read the play, she saw that the script calls for some suggestion of a fire. How to do it? Do it for real, she thought. “I love fire,” Mileaf says. “I find it mesmerizing. I totally wanted to use the fire.”

And so began a major effort for a highly incendiary stage effect. In order to protect the twists and turns of the play, I’ll say only that it’s the story of a suburban couple who get to know new neighbors, and a lot of the play pits dreams against reality. And there is, in the production now running, a real fire – three of them, in fact, during the show.

“There’s a barbeque effect – a bonfire, if you will – a torch lit off the bonfire, and this little set-up here that allows us to create an effect that the vertical blinds catch on fire,” says Matthew Lewandowski, the theater company’s production manager, pointing to the small backstage areas where the large fire is controlled. “It’s all butane, no propane. It’s just a lot safer – it gives us the same effect but also gives us the color we want, which is a true, orange flame as opposed to a blue one.”

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Lewandowski and the company’s Roy W. Backes began coordinating efforts to make the fire happen soon after Mileaf decided she wanted the play to have a real one. The play’s design team met, and special effects creators were brought in. A Philadelphia fire marshal was, too, and the theater company’s crew went through fire-code chapter and verse, checking off each rule to make sure the play’s crew would be in compliance.

No matter how a piece of scenery or a prop needed to look to the audience, it had to be either made of metal or fireproofed. At every show, the fire that sets a house ablaze is controlled from a tiny backstage cubbyhole by crew member Thomas Cristaldi, who’s in touch with the stage manager on a headset while he looks at both a computer-screen image of the live performance and sees it through a peep-hole from behind the scenery.

A butane flame won’t make a noise, so what the audience hears when the blaze begins is a track created by sound designer Daniel Perelstein to play in the theater just after actor Matteo Scammell lights a torch and his character, Kenny, then sets the fire.

“It’s astonishing,” says Scammell. “It was like lighting a fire inside of myself the first time I saw the fire in the room. I was like – omigod, there’s fire and it’s right there! And we’re in this controlled setting and everything is safe and good and all that jazz, but you don’t see fire inside of buildings usually and not panic.”

When Scammell was hired, “I didn’t know that I’d be setting things aflame. I knew that the play demanded a kind of fiery quality, especially in the character.” The first time the cast rehearsed the play with the fire, about a week before it opened, “it felt really awesome to have the fire in my hand… The first day, getting the fire and lighting it was really intense. The whole theater company, all the production staff — everybody was like, OK, Matteo, here’s the fire, do it.”

Lisa D’Amour’s play premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago four years ago, and productions have suggested fires with the use of lighting and smoke effects and some flame. The Philadelphia Theatre Company’s is the first to go the whole way.

Mileaf, the director, says the fire isn’t the main event in the play but allows the production to make points about dynamics that attract us. “Everybody likes to stand around a fireplace or a campfire, a bonfire, and look at it. It’s beautiful, fire. And it’s dangerous. I was trying to replicate that dynamic – why it’s compelling and why you need to stay away from it.”

_“Detroit,” produced by Philadelphia Theatre Company, runs through Nov. 9 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets. 215-985-0420 or www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.

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